This Yuletide season, we’re again starting to see the circulation of stories factually portraying the fabled Red and White Amanita muscaria mushroom as being the inspiration for Santa Claus and having a deep connection to the tradition of Christmas.
While I love a good entheogenic origin story as much as the next psychonaut, the available evidence for this conclusion is less substantial than a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Various stories, myths and rumors have been floating around for years tying Amanita to Saint Nick, his troupe of flying reindeer, and the act of sliding down the chimney bearing gifts among other tropes.
The reality behind this folkloric belief is actually far more muddled and uncertain than many parading this holiday tale around as fact would have you believe.
In fact there are several high profile myths about the mysterious Amanita muscaria that have proven fruitless when held up to scrutiny.
For example, famed anthropologist and entheogenic mushroom researcher Gordon Wasson erroneously believed Amanita muscaria to be the legendary ‘Soma’ inebriant of the Himalayan region written about in ancient Vedic texts. Wasson wrote a book called “Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality” postulating this theory. He circulated his conviction far and wide such that it caught on in popular culture and still today is referenced by people claiming the divine sacrament was a mushroom, a theory which is widely discredited by Vedic scholars today.
Another misguided example of Amanita muscaria lore is the widely-held belief that Vikings would consume the psychoactive fungi before charging into battle in an act known as ‘going berserk’. This purported tradition was first referenced by Swedish professor Samuel Odman in 1784, and continues to be falsely spread as historical fact today. The dissociative and drowsiness-inducing qualities of Amanita muscaria would have rendered its use as a battle-aid highly questionable for the Vikings, and subsequent analysis of their warrior culture suggest that other present-day Scandinavian regional plants such as Hyoscyamus niger (henbane) are a far more likely candidate for the botanical agonist employed to induce ‘berserking’.
With multiple high-profile debunked myths directly centring the fabled and largely misunderstood Amanita muscaria and its quixotic properties, one imagines that the Santa Claus story is the next one warranting scrutiny.
The first known appearance of the modern character of Santa Claus in his red and white outfit comes to us in the 1860’s courtesy of Harper’s Weekly artist Thomas Nash. Nash popularised the iconic red and white outfit-clad, jubilantly overweight Santa Claus character that is often portrayed as being an anthropomorphisation of the red and white Amanita muscaria mushroom.
The folk story behind the act of Santa Claus ‘sliding down the chimney’ is derived from Sami ‘Noaidis’, or medicine men, entering the yurts and huts of people through the top rather than their typical entrance due to snow piling up around the sides of a house in the arctic winter. These medicine workers purportedly brought the red and white Amanitas for their neighbours and villagers, which correlates to the image of a gift-bearing magical being coming down the chimney with gifts.
Again, this is an oft-recycled trope with no primary evidence supporting it. The oral nature of Sami mythology makes it possible that the account of a village medicine man sliding down the chimney bearing entheogenic fungi is simply not one that’s been committed to the historical written word, but many of the parallels between Amanita muscaria and Sami medicine workers are difficult to square with reality. There are still 80,000 Sami people living in Lapland (Northern Finland) and tens of thousands more around the world. There are Sami cultural centres and hubs online with native English writing and information – and yet curiously, none of these resources offer any reference to or documentation of this widely circulated mythology connecting Santa to the Amanita muscaria.
Among the stories of the historical connection between Santa and the Amanita muscaria, none of the evidence derives from a primary source. This is very interesting considering that the Sami people remain present in the northern Finnish region of Lapland, where they have a parliament and cultural outreach centres. At the very least, this story warrants more research and concrete historical evidence or validation from the tribe itself.
Personally, I would love for more clear evidence derived from primary sources to definitively tie together the Amanita muscaria mushroom with the origin story of Santa Claus. I personally use Amanita muscaria tincture to great effect as a sleep aid, and have photographed and marveled at large patches of these mushrooms many times. There is a lot more history and tradition to unpack around this fabled psychoactive mushroom, and I hope to visit the Sami people and Siberian tribes myself one day to learn more about the ancestral use of this medicinal mushroom.
As the Winter Solstice approaches and the inevitable mythologising of Santa as a mushroom begins to creep into our timelines, it’s wise to entertain this possible connection as an exciting story which requires further documentation and investigation rather than as a universally accepted historical fact.